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Buried in the rubble

| Sunday, Sept. 10, 2006

NEW YORK - Pain seeped through the cozy morphine cocoon protecting Joe Torrillo's brain from his crushed body.

He awoke in a sterile, unfamiliar room, lying atop the taut, clean sheets of a hospital bed. He saw a cast encasing his left arm and felt a thick wrap of gauze holding his scalp together. Breathing hurt.

A doctor and hospital staff members walked in and asked him, "Do you know who you are?"

They didn't expect Torrillo's answer.

- - -

Torrillo joined the Fire Department of New York in 1981, five years after graduating from New York City Technical College. His first firehouse, and his second home for 15 years, was Ten House, across Liberty Street from the World Trade Center.

"I knew the design of those buildings inside and out," Torrillo said, his Brooklyn accent bubbling out from under a thick, black mustache. "As a matter of fact, we used to go on class trips to see this thing going up."

During drills at the World Trade Center, he would take firefighters and captains to floors with exposed structural elements.

"I would explain what was good and what was bad."

He transferred to a firehouse in Brooklyn in 1996, nearly lost his thumb at an apartment fire during the first hour of 1997, and took a rehabilitation assignment in the FDNY Office of Fire Safety Education. As a lieutenant a year later, the commissioner's office assigned him to run the office. He helped create FireZone in October, 2000, a state-of-the-art teaching center in Rockefeller Center and a magnet for school children.

Toy maker Fisher-Price asked him in 2001 to help create Billy Blazes, an addition to their Rescue Heroes line of action figures. In return, for every action figure sold, they'd donate $1 to Torrillo's fire prevention programs.

"I thought, being that 9-1-1 is the number for emergencies, we could introduce Billy Blazes on 9/11," Torrillo said. "They wanted it out there for the holiday season."

He scheduled the press conference for 9 a.m.

- - -

The doctor expected to hear Torrillo say "McNamara," the name on the back of the jacket he wore three days earlier, when a fire boat rushed him out of the debris cloud and across the Hudson River to Jersey City's Liberty Trauma Center.

As soon as hospital staff learned he was wearing another fireman's gear, they left the room and "started making phone calls. Somehow, they called my brother," Torrillo said.

His brother called his wife, Victoria, who had never believed her husband was dead.

More doctors came into Torrillo's room.

"They said, 'Do you know what happened?' "

- - -

He was late. He should have left 20 minutes ago. Torrillo told the three cadets who were going with him to the midtown Manhattan press conference to grab their backpacks. They had to get moving.

"One of the kids came running back into my office to tell me a plane hit one of the towers," Torrillo said.

This could mean only one thing: Traffic.

"I'm thinking it's a little private plane, maybe clipped the building's windows. My biggest fear was that there would be so many emergency vehicles going into Manhattan from Brooklyn that I might never get to this press conference," he said.

They piled into his Ford Escort and barreled toward the Brooklyn Bridge. Torrillo worried about his bosses, toy company executives and reporters.

"I'm thinking I'm gonna get fired over this."

Then they got to the bridge.

"I can see the North Tower has eight floors on fire," Torrillo said.

The cadets, eyes wide, asked what was happening.

"Eight floors on fire in any building, especially a high-rise building, is an uncontrollable fire. My first words were, 'Everybody on the upper part of that building is going to die,' and I said, 'That building is going to collapse.' "

They parked on the sidewalk behind Ten House. Running to the front of the building, he found the doors open, the trucks gone and a hint of the day's horrors scattered at his feet.

"Civilians -- people from the neighborhood and the building -- were laying on the floor of the firehouse. A lot of them had been struck by jet fuel, some of them had burns, some had broken bones, some were screaming," Torrillo said. "I had to kind of jump over them, grab a helmet, boots and gloves because I wanted to go into the tower."

The schedule showed Lt. Thomas McNamara was off for the day, so Torrillo borrowed his gear.

Fifteen feet from the firehouse door, and just yards away from the face of Tower Two, the scream of jet engines stopped him.

"I look up, and the second jet -- I'm right underneath it, and I watch it go into the South Tower."

The street shook.

"I ran back into the firehouse and a big, huge fireball landed right where I was standing," Torrillo said. "I realized then that it was an attack."

He had been there -- right there -- before. Torrillo was riding in Engine 10 as it backed into Ten House just after noon on Feb. 26, 1993, when terrorists detonated a bomb in the basement of Tower One.

From across the city, they came -- fleets of fire trucks, police cars and ambulances. Emergency medical technicians set up a triage center in the lobby of Tower Two.

"I'm thinking the collapse is going to happen at two or three o'clock in the afternoon. Something inside me is saying, '... We have about four, five hours to get everybody out of the towers.' "

He ran into the South Tower lobby to clear out the EMTs.

"They said I was crazy," Torrillo said. "I was adamant. I said, 'You gotta get out of this tower now. Set up a staging area about three blocks away from the towers. We'll call one ambulance crew as we need you.' "

The last ambulance crew cleared the lobby with Torrillo in tow. A moment later, the walls roared.

"I look up, and here comes the tower."

From the plaza peering up, it looked like the top of the tower exploded. Floors pancaked, shoving millions of cubic feet of air and debris out the sides.

"I said, 'You idiot. You're the only one who knew the building was going to come down and you put yourself right in the middle of it.' "

Near the corner of Liberty and West streets, a pedestrian bridge crossed into the World Financial Center in Battery Park City. Torrillo ran, hoping to make it under there so someone would be able to identify his body.

The wind caught the back of his helmet and sent it sailing into the air in front of him. A moment later, the wind took him.

A flying piece of steel opened his scalp from his forehead to the base of his skull.

"All the concrete from the building is pummeling my body and breaking all my bones, my ribs and my arm, and I'm buried under the building and it's darker than midnight."

Blinded and bleeding inside and out, Torrillo could turn his head only a few degrees. Dust filled his throat, and the roar evaporated.

"I can hear people yelling, screaming and crying all around me. Nobody can see anybody."

Firefighters who took cover nearby ran back immediately to dig him out and carry him across the street, into the World Financial Center. Fires -- cars, buildings, piles of debris -- burned all around him.

Fearing Torrillo had snapped his spine, the firefighters taped his neck and strapped him to a long spine board -- a rigid rectangle of fiberglass and plastic with seat belt-like restraints.

"I heard them say something about putting me on a boat."

Fireboats moored along the Hudson River offered a better chance for survival than an ambulance. The rivers weren't buried.

Firefighters laid Torrillo on the boat deck and went to work patching the gash in his head.

"All of a sudden, I hear this rumble and a roar and somebody said, 'Oh, my God. Here comes the other building.' "

Firefighters leapt off the boat to seek cover while Torrillo, still secured to the spine board, searched frantically for the restraints' release button. A lucky swipe with his index finger caught it, freeing him.

"I couldn't see anything because my eyes were damaged. Everything was blurry."

He felt an opening in the boat's superstructure and dove through. It turned out to be a steep stairwell to the engine room.

"It was excruciating," Torrillo said. "And now I can hear the glass from the North Tower raining down on the deck of the boat."

The darkness of the debris cloud enveloped him again. This time, he saw no fires and heard no screams. He was alone with a new terror.

"My biggest fear is that the boat is going to go underwater. That's always been a fear, ever since I was a kid, to die of drowning."

For what felt like half an hour, he waited in the dark, unable to move.

The sound of boots landing on the deck above him let him know he wasn't dead.

"I hear, 'Start the motor! Start the motor!' So somebody says, 'I'll start it.' "

The footsteps came closer, down the narrow staircase and into the dark.

"And he stepped right on top of me," Torrillo said. "I let out a big scream and, I don't know, I guess I scared him. He shined the flashlight on me and he screamed, 'Oh my god, there's a fireman down here! This guy's not going to make it!' "

A captain ran down the staircase, looked at Torrillo and told the crew to get the boat moving.

"I heard the captain say, 'I don't care who you hit, just get it out of here.' "

The boat skipped out of the debris cloud and Torrillo saw the sun.

- - -

The doctors asked Torrillo what else he knew.

"I said, 'I don't know anything.' "

"Do you know any of the firemen that died?"

He didn't know firemen died.

They didn't want to be the ones to tell him, the doctors said, but between 300 and 400 firemen were presumed dead and the twin towers are gone.

"All I want to do is I want to get the hell out of the hospital," Torrillo said. "I'd say 30 percent of them got to be friends of mine, at least. I told the docs, I said, 'Please let me go home.' "

The Jersey City Fire Department took Torrillo back to Brooklyn, his wife, three daughters and son. Most of the department, except a few friends, thought he was dead.

"I got home in late afternoon and my friends came over. They were on their way into Manhattan to a wake for Father (Mychal) Judge. I knew this would be the last time I could pay my respects."

Wracked with pain and moving awkwardly on one crutch, Torrillo got into their car. He wore the same dust-covered clothes he'd nearly died in, and traveling reopened his head wound, sending a trickle of blood down the side of his face.

"They thought I crawled out of a grave," Torrillo said.

Torrillo went to a funeral the next day, and another the day after that, and on and on. In between, he saw specialists for his hearing, vision and shattered insides. He felt guilty for breathing when 343 of his brothers couldn't, and he wanted to return to active duty.

- - -

Three years later, Torrillo sat in the office of the doctor assigned to determine whether he could go back to work.

"He's going through my folder and he says, 'Let me ask you something. ... Who do you love more, your family or your job?' " Torrillo said. He admitted, through a haze of equivocation, he loved his family above all. "He said, 'I will never, ever allow you, under any circumstances, to become an active firefighter again. I have to stand up for your family, whether you like it or not.' "

So he began to speak. He put together a presentation on why the towers fell. He sometimes travels with a group of survivors from the Columbine High School shooting, to talk about tolerance and the consequences of violence. He's considering joining a speakers bureau to get more than travel expenses for his speeches.

Torrillo will turn 51 in November. With his disability pension, he bought a house in Manalapan, N.J.

"I come back into the city seven days a week. It's just, like, my family has a better life in the suburbs. At night, I'm 45 minutes out of the city, and I'm driving past horse farms and apple orchards.

"It's crazy."

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